It is amazing to note that Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Féin, to the best of my research, has done very few interviews on 1916. Arguably, the Sinn Féin leader’s opinion on that revolutionary event is the most important of any Irish politician, but in a country where the media still practices self-censorship when it comes to Adams, perhaps we should not be shocked.
To put the record straight we sat down with Adams during his recent visit to New York. As usual his insights and opinions were direct and compelling.
N O’D: Can you tell me what you think is the major lesson of 1916?
GA: I think the most important thing to come out of 1916 is the Proclamation. I mean, the act of revolution and the huge bravery of 3,000 people going out against the biggest empire in the world is of colossal importance, but the Proclamation is extraordinary.
You know, I actually think the Proclamation is the one of the finest documents ever written and they contained it all in one page, which is remarkable. Even its opening line, recognizing women as equals, was before its time.
It seems to be quite heavily based on the American Declaration of Independence.
Well, it's based on rights. I think rights and even the lack of rights are the core of every conflict we’ve ever seen, and obviously Pearse and Connolly had a big influence on the writing of it.
It does draw its roots from the American Revolution and the French Revolution, but, you know, if you look at it now and what is the importance of the centenary we have today, it is to discuss if these rights they enumerate are present in our society today.
There is also a huge dimension in relation to a conversation about Irish unity and the North and the nation, just the concept of nationhood contained in the Proclamation, yet the establishment in the Irish Republic is very partitionist. They face away from the reality.
You know that when you’re in the Dáil and they say to you about your coming down from “up there,” as if you don’t belong.
I actually thought it was very funny, some backbenchers challenging (party deputy leader) Mary Lou McDonald from South Dublin and saying, “Don’t you dare come down here and tell us what to do.”
Now I know that attitude does offend Northerners. I remember Dana, a candidate from Derry during the presidential election, saying Northerners always looks South, Southerners rarely look North and there was a truth in that.
I don’t think it's the people's fault if you have a state which is in existence for whatever length of time, almost 90 years. You know, Liam Mellows when he was arguing against the Treaty said, “Men will get into power when they get into power and they won’t give up that power."
For me, what’s missing out of the current debate – and hopefully we will get to this at an appropriate time – is that here was a revolution there in 1916, but there was also a counter-revolution and the counter-revolution won and the revisionism of today is all about that.
When you say a counter-revolution what are the key elements of that?
Well, before I get to that, a very important point is when the British came in and actually executed the 1916 leaders. It wasn’t just a knee jerk sort of imperial reaction. It was quite ruthless and it removed – and I think it was quite deliberate – the main thinkers and writers of the period.
It removed the republican cohort, the revolutionary leadership that had come through against all the odds to organize the rising and to make the Proclamation.
You’ll remember that there was a whole group of quite good people through a range of different cultural, sporting, social and feminist movements, as well as the volunteers and the other organizations of struggle who survived, but this particular group of men and women who actually pushed the issue and the 16 that were killed were the real leaders.
Maire Comerford of Cumann na mBan, the women’s revolutionary group, has written that it was little wonder that there was a counter-revolution because – and she was talking about de Valera – those who ended up coming into power weren’t of the same caliber. She didn’t mean caliber in a moral sense but in leadership ability as the people who had put together the Proclamation.
I stand in amazement of them. They were just enormous. I heard James Connolly described as the golden generation, you know, and they really were. They were just so idealistic and brave.
Who stands out to you?
Well, Connolly and Pearse as well, a person who I have always had a great affection for, and probably because he was a man of a certain age, Thomas Kent down in Cork. He was out in the Anglo war and he was a Fenian he kept at it, you know.
So the two states that evolved were very different from 1916 ideals because of the counter-revolution?
There were two very mean spirited, really nasty little conservative states set up. When you think of all the authors that were banned, and when you even think of the book "The Tailor and Ansty" banned in the 1940s for being sex obsessed with priests trying to burn it, all they were doing was telling local stories. It had become a very intolerant country.
No wonder so many people left. That’s why Irish Americans ended up – whether it's Michael Flatley or Eileen Ivers – now at the top of the Irish dance and music revival . All those people left.
There was a big Belfast element of it around before 1916. Joseph Bigger and Roger Casement and Bulmer Hudson were involved in it, and Sean McDermott was in and Pearse, and they traveled regularly to Belfast to do all that stuff.
But when partition came these guys were lost. They were from the North. They were totally lost geographically.
So for me that was the counter-revolution personified in that type of state. Understandably, the focus was on the orange state, but what was happening in the south was absolutely horrific too. If you read some of the stuff that was coming out from the Peadar O’Donnells and the Sean O'Faolains and the Frank O’Connors you get some sense of what was really going on, and then we didn't even know about the Magdalenes, etc.
But I want to say there is a lot of decency around. My life experience of Ireland has been very much the two Irelands: there’s official Ireland, and then there’s the people you meet at a hurling game or you're having a pint or you’re in a working-class area, and they are the salt of the Earth.
You can see it in a sort of a funny way in the marriage equality thing where there was mammys and daddys and grannies and aunts who were out. The decency just came out in the Irish people. I wish it had after 1916, but the leaders like Connolly and Pearse were gone.
Do you see a different Ireland now, say, after the marriage referendum?
Yeah, and again my life experiences have been in families and in communities where people are much more tolerant and much more respectful and the meitheal, the act of neighbor helping neighbor, still lives. It's still in there so in a funny sort of a way there is a wee bit of reclaiming going on.
I mean, the big lesson out of that last election was people were offered tax benefits and the majority of people said no, we want public services. That was quite remarkable. They might not have chosen who I thought were the best people to provide it – that was inconclusive – but it was absolutely conclusive the majority of people – and I would include people in that who voted for Fianna Fáil and so on – are so annoyed at people waiting on hospital trolleys and kids in homeless hotel rooms.
We should be doing better at this stage.
Jeepers, we are a modern society and yet do you know how many houses were built in the last year called social housing in Louth? Not one! Not one and there are 5,000 people homeless.
Who else impressed you in the Rising?
The women, Elizabeth O’Farrell (adjutant to Pearse) and the famous photograph where you can just see her boots and some of them have Photoshopped her out so you don’t see her at all. Winifred Carney, who was Connolly’s secretary … Alice Milligan, who was from a Unionist background but stayed with the republic her whole life.
Kathleen Clarke, Tom's wife, although I did listen to a small extract of a tape that she did and she was being very disparaging about others, but in terms of her influence and so on I think she must have been an outstanding person.
Joseph Mary Plunkett’s family, the Plunkett's were very well off but they were very socially conscious because where they were living in luxury – their parents had something like 26 properties – they were right beside the tenements so they were very conscious of that and very socially fair.
But I remember, and you must remember too, in the 1960s people were still in those tenements, nothing had changed utterly in them for 40 years, but I remember when I was 16, 17 going through Dublin around Mountjoy Square and Belvedere, I remember the Dublin housing action committee because, you know, there were terrible conditions some of which still survive – you’d think you were there today.
Tell me, are we still living in counter-revolutionary Ireland then?
Yes and no. Connolly talked about the re-conquest of Ireland by the Irish people, and Bobby Sands interestingly enough talks about when the people of Ireland have a hunger for freedom in their hearts, so these two different guys had the same notion of reconquest or of a people's movement. I entirely subscribe to that.
Times change. I think that obviously small groups of people and vanguards can do a lot of important things, and you also have to remember that in any struggle, if you look back at the footage of the Civil Rights movement in Ireland, you will see hundreds of thousands of people at the height, but if you go back 10 or 20 years before it was just a handful of people protesting. There were probably 20.
It was the same as the hunger strikers. Sure when the hunger strikers started you could have had 10 saying the rosary on the Falls Road and then it became bigger and bigger, and so the same thing happened here. I remember old Pete Seeger up until his death still stood against the war on Iraq and to clean up the Hudson on his own, so obviously individuals are hugely important. But the real revolution in terms of the type of changes that are required are the transformation of Irish politics.
The recent election saw neither major party Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil could recover their old power, and saw the domination of the two main parties in the southern state is no longer there. Obviously if we do our work right and if we can build some sort of group – and this would involve members from all the parties because there are people in all the parties who are socially and nationally minded – we are probably living in a very, very interesting period.
The other thing that affects us dreadfully is emigration – you know, if you go into the western seaboard the likes of Roscommon and into Sligo, Mayo and Donegal, it is just absolutely dreadful.
Consider in eight years almost 400,000 people left from a state that is less than five million population. Like, I met one family in Mayo. We did a meeting with them and it's all the things you know inside out: one son is married to the other one’s daughter there in Australia. The grandparents are expecting their first grandchild and the ones in Australia can’t afford to travel back home and the ones here aren’t fit enough to travel there.
How do you see the political situation? What do you think will happen?
Quite frankly I don’t know. Fianna Fáil kinda sneaked in. It was interesting. It's a bit more complex than that. About one week into the campaign, because we holed Fine Gael below the water line when it comes to highlighting 2 billion euros which they didn’t have, they never really recovered from that. But there was also all that anger from the last five years, and Labour went in with 37 TDs and came back out with seven because people were so annoyed at them.
But we identified that Fianna Fáil could come up the middle. This is what happened.
Will there be another election?
Maybe, or these two parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, will go in together, but (Fianna Fáil leader) Mícheál Martin was very absolute in the Dáil the other day: they would not.
So it's strikes me that probably the option that Fianna Fáil are thinking of is to leave it to Fine Gael to struggle through it and perhaps support them on, but then pull the plug at the end of the year, but no one really has any certainty about any of it. These are interesting times.